The accident, which occurred about 12:30 p.m. at the intersection of East Thomas Street and Melrose Avenue, closed two lanes of the freeway and caused traffic backups that stretched for miles.

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The scores of Seattle-area students enrolled in an Eastern Washington job-training program had long looked forward to Friday.

“Everybody woke up cheering and happy because we were going home,” said 17-year-old Freddy Laffite of Seattle, a student of the Columbia Basin Job Corps Center in Moses Lake.

But their trip home for the holidays nearly turned tragic Friday when two charter buses carrying 80 students slid down a steep ice-covered Seattle street and crashed through a guardrail 20 feet above Interstate 5. The front wheels of one bus ended up dangling over the freeway.

“We were all screaming,” said 16-year-old Alex Hammell of Bothell, who was aboard the second bus. “I thought we were going to die.”

Laffite, Hammell and the others were able to escape by popping out emergency windows and clambering out the back of the buses or jumping down from broken windows.

Eleven students were taken to Harborview Medical Center with minor injuries, according to fire officials and Peggy Hendren, director of the Columbia Basin Job Corps.

The accident, which occurred about 12:30 p.m. at the intersection of East Thomas Street and Melrose Avenue, closed two lanes of the freeway and caused traffic backups that stretched for miles.

The accident is being investigated by Seattle police, who said the icy streets were a contributing factor.

How it happened

The buses, owned by Northwestern Trailways, were among three that had convoyed from Moses Lake to Seattle, where parents were waiting at the Greyhound bus station. The buses also were scheduled to drop students in Tacoma and Olympia.

The Columbia Basin Job Corps Center is a free education and job-training program for people ages 16 to 24, according to its Web site. Most students live on the center’s Moses Lake campus. The program is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The three buses got off I-5 at the East Olive Street exit and were headed north on Bellevue Avenue. They reached East Thomas Street, the first street on which they could turn left. But once on Thomas, the two buses started sliding on the icy cobblestone street, police said. The third bus in the convoy was able to avoid the street.

Dean Short, from Port Townsend, was riding in the back of the second bus when he saw the first bus start sliding down Thomas Street.

“We told the other bus driver not to go down, but he didn’t listen to us,” said Short, 21.

The first bus slid across Melrose Street, crashed through the guardrail over I-5 and edged out over the freeway. The second bus then struck the first bus and pushed it further over the edge, witnesses and passengers said.

“I just wanted to live”

The front end of the first bus and a corner of the second were left hanging about 20 feet above the freeway, which was littered with debris from the crash.

“We were going downhill really fast, and the driver tried to turn but couldn’t turn, and we crashed into the other bus,” said Kiela Current, 18, of Spokane, who was aboard the second bus. “People started screaming and glass exploded.”

“Somebody said, ‘Go out the back,’ and we did,” said 22-year-old Jerry Remeliik, who was on the first bus. “It was a very fast-paced reaction.”

Siera Langford, 18, of Tacoma, said getting off the bus quickly was instinctive. She doesn’t remember exactly what she was feeling.

“I didn’t care, I just wanted to live,” she said.

Everyone made it out of the two buses on their own power.

Neither of the buses had chains on the tires.

Langford’s mother, Carina Langford, said that while she is grateful her daughter survived and was uninjured, she felt it was irresponsible for the buses to be without chains.

“The kids were specifically told there would be chains on the buses,” she said. “I had asked because I was concerned about the weather.”

Several other passengers said they had been reassured the buses would have chains on the tires because of the icy conditions.

But Hendren, director of the Job Corps program, said no such promises were made.

Cleto Achabal, president of Northwestern Stage Lines, which also does business as Northwestern Trailways, said Friday he had not had a chance to discuss the accident at length with the two drivers. His understanding was that chains had not been required on either I-5 or Interstate 90, the main routes the buses came in on.

“Obviously, if chains were required or there were conditions that need them, they put them on,” Achabal said. “At the time, we were not aware of chain-up requirements being enforced.”

No “road-closed” sign

For northbound vehicles that exit I-5 at East Olive, Denny is a main route into downtown Seattle. No warnings were posted on the freeway indicating the route had been closed because of ice.

Rick Sheridan, Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman, said the road closures are short term and often done by the police. He also said that without a way to convey information about closures, like a “dynamic message board,” it wouldn’t do any good to coordinate with the state Department of Transporation, which oversees the interstate.

According to records, Northwestern Trailways has not been cited for any safety violations and has not been in any crashes in the past two years. It has a “satisfactory” safety rating with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Thankful to be alive

Many of the bus-crash survivors were angry and disheartened to learn they would have to wait several hours before they could claim their belongings once the buses were moved. The last bus wasn’t moved until about 6:30 p.m.

Others, however, were thankful to be alive and grateful.

“The drivers were great,” said Jerry Remeliik. “I can’t blame them. They were trying very, very hard and they prevented a tragedy.”

Laffite said he thinks the problem was that the drivers were not familiar with Seattle’s streets.

“Obviously, I would have told them to take a different street,” he said.

Just after 7 p.m., the two right lanes of northbound I-5 at Denny Way were still closed while crews installed a temporary barrier above the freeway.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or

Seattle Times staff reporters Jennifer Sullivan, Bob Young and Maureen O’Hagan contributed to this report.